The Farm Bill – Where do we go from here?

Posted on by Rachel Dlugash

The Farm Bill, a multi-billion dollar piece of legislation that funds federal food assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance program known as SNAP (≈75% of the bill), commodity subsidy programs (≈10%), and conservation programs (≈9%), usually is in effect for five years. The current bill expired on September 30, 2012, although many of the programs are funded through January 2013.

On September 9, 2011, the Obama Administration released its budget deficit reduction recommendations which included a decrease in agricultural spending by $33 billion over the next 10 years. On October 17, 2011, the House and Senate Agriculture Committee leadership sent a collective recommendation to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, proposing a cut of $23 billion on mandatory programs to the Farm Bill over the next decade. A deadline was set for November 1, 2011 to provide a complete legislative package of recommendations, but this timeline was not met. Without agreement from the Committee or a new bill that finalizes the budget, cuts for agricultural programs will automatically occur in January 2013 under the process of sequestration.

Estimates of budget cuts after sequestration were released last month with approximately an $8 billion reduction in funds for the Farm Bill, significantly less than the original estimate of $15-16 billion. The significant difference in these amounts is due to an exemption by the Office of Management and Budget from the 8.2% sequestration cut for nearly all crop insurance subsidies.

Two drafts of a new Farm Bill have been developed, one by the Democratic controlled Senate and the other by the Republican controlled House, continuing to reflect significant differences in the proposed extent of budget cuts, particularly in federal food assistance programs. The Senate passed a $969 billion replacement Farm Bill in June, 2012 (by a 64-35 vote). Both the House and the Senate will need to reconcile their differences in order to pass a new Farm Bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would need to put many services and programs on hold if no legislative action is taken to reauthorize the Farm Bill. If new legislation is not passed or the current bill is not extended, then the “permanent law”– outdated rules from the 1930s (when the Farm Bill was first passed) –would come into effect on January 1, 2013.

After its five week summer recess, and with less than a month before the election, Congress has been divided about the provisions and funding for this legislation. That is why constituents affected by the Farm Bill have become increasingly vocal about the need for its passage. This period of uncertainty has already taken a toll on farmers, especially with the extreme weather conditions plaguing rural America. The proposed budget cuts and the impasse also threatens the health and wellbeing of recipients of SNAP (Food Stamps). Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said on September 20 that the Congress will not be voting on the Farm Bill until after the elections.

As many Americans struggle with hunger and food insecurity during this time of economic hardship, SNAP is providing an important safety net for low-income families. 46.7 million people in the United States, 50% of whom are children, received food stamps in June 2012. The total budget for SNAP was $75.6 billion in FY2011. Future funding for SNAP will be an important component of Farm Bill discussions by the Congress after the elections in November.

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